A bright, seasonable, obligation-free day calls for slow, hours-long treks with the dogs through forest stands and up along windswept hilltops, with red-tailed hawks idling far overhead. But a raw, rainy, obligation-free day almost necessitates a deep couch, sleeping dogs pressed close, and murder mysteries. And not just any kind of murder mystery; who would want to read something dark and edgy on such a day, when the elements themselves are quite dark and edgy enough?
No, there are days when nothing else will do but a spot of the great Catherine Aird.
That’s the pen name for Kinn Hamilton McIntosh, who was born in 1930 in the Yorkshire town of Huddersfield (perhaps more famous today for its, um, association with one of the stars of YouTube) and took to writing murder stories with the no-nonsense competence that tends to characterize all things Yorkshire. She invented a county called Calleshire with all the stereotypical British trappings – deep streams, fair days, a castle, plenty of idiosyncratic locals, and, in the genre’s one recurring act of science fiction,plenty of interesting occurrences.In short, murder happens in Calleshire – often, and often ingeniously.
To watch over all this mayhem she invented Detective Inspector C. D. Sloan, an unflappable married man with unremarkable features, unremarkable height, and unremarkable ways – but with one unerring trait: he notices things. In fact, he notices so much that it takes a little while for the reader to realize that he’s noticing everything, all the time. And such is Aird’s easy skill as a narrator that this never feels forced or annoyingly Sherlockian, even when Sloan is paired with his somewhat dim-witted sidekick Detective Constable Crosby, who can always be relied upon for a good punch-line, as in this autopsy scene from 1982′s Last Respects:
“His physical identity’s no problem.”
“Good,” said Sloan warmly.
“He’s male,” said Dr. Dabbe, obligingly beginning at the very beginning.
Sloan wrote that down. The Genesis touch, you could say. “And how old, Doctor?”
Surely that did come after sex, didn’t it? “About twenty-three,” said the doctor promptly. “Give or take a year or two either way.”
Sloan looked down at his notebook and wondered what came next in the pathologist’s logical sequence after sex and age.
“As to his race …” began Dr. Dabbe cautiously.
“Yes?” Perhaps a seaman from an alien country had found landfall on an English shore after all …
“Caucasian,” said Dabbe, reaching for his surgical gown.
Detective Constable Crosby jerked his head dismissively. “Oh, he’s a foreigner then, is he?”
See what else is going on in that scene, though, the playful way Aird almost acts like a commentator on her own proceedings, nudging and winking at her readers from the sidelines with those bits about sex and seamen from alien countries. Her Sloan virtually never gives voice to his own most wry speculations, but we the readers spend enough time inside his head to quite like the man – and to feel keenly his own careful, observational view of even ordinary interactions, as when he’s talking with his boss about a fairground murder in 1981′s Passing Strange:
“And she was last seen alive when, Sloan?” asked Leeyes. “Do you know the time for sure?”
“Almost,” said Sloan. There was a subtle distinction in the superintendent’s last sentence that might have been lost on some officers. Sloan had noticed it, though. Superintendent Leeyes hadn’t used the royal ‘We’ yet. The case and all its shortcomings were still Sloan’s.
In fact, it’s the nuances of her dialogue that form the chief pleasure of re-reading Aird. Her talk sparkles – and it does so in some of the least likely places, like when her two bluff, reticent policemen are discussing the deceased’s neighborhood in 1980s crackerjack Some Die Eloquent:
“It’s very respectable up there,” conceded Sloan.
“Exactly,” said Leeyes, who beyond a certain point did not equate money with respectability. Not new money, that is. In the superintendent’s book, His Grace the Duke of Calleshire could have as much as he liked. That was different.
“In fact,” persisted Sloan, “my wife would like us to think of moving that way now that …”
Leeyes grunted. “A nice quiet neighborhood.”
“Trees on the footpath.”
“No through traffic,” said Sloan.
“Grass verges,” said Leeyes.
“Just local vehicles.” Policemen grew to dislike cars.
“Near the tennis club.”
“Good gardens too, sir.” Sloan’s own recreation was growing roses. It was about the only one that went with his sort of working hours. “Clay soil.”
“No trouble up there either.” The superintendent added the ultimate police accolade.
Once she left Yorkshire as a young girl, Aird spent the rest of her life in the same little village in Kent where she lives today, active in village business, observant of village life, conversant in village history. Her novels are thus as close as we can come to having murder stories written by Jane Marple herself – or perhaps, given their sly humor, by Dame Margaret Rutherford. The books are light, entertaining, scenic, and only mildly complicated – in other words, on certain days, nothing else will do.